Katherine Butler: Room with a strongly held view

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The Independent Online

You can't help wondering what happened. What was it that provoked somebody to go online and post a review urging others to avoid Detroit's Westin Book Cadillac Hotel "unless you and your family actually enjoy sharing your evening with the local prostitutes". Were the other patrons dressed for the Reeperbahn? Was the (anonymous) reviewer's username by any chance, "aya_tollahtehran" and had he sat next to woman who looked like Carla Bruni? Whatever the grudge, the dissatisfied customer took revenge using the most powerfulweapon at the travelling public's disposal: TripAdvisor.

The outburst led to litigation but, The New York Times reported this week, the case was thrown out because Trip-Advisor, which now has 35 million members, is not responsible for third-party comments under US law. It is not an end to the backlash, however, with hotels on both sides of the Atlantic preparing a legal assault in an effort to name and shame fake, malicious or libellous posters. Jon Grabowski of the impugned Detroit hotel told the newspaper that TripAdvisor was a "cesspool of negativity".

It's a reaction I sympathise with. But it's also as if, after years of cheesy smiles and crowning the customer king, the accommodation industry has collectively reacted like Basil Fawlty and gone berserk, ordering the guests never to darken the door again.

Tactically how can it make commercial sense to declare war on this form of democracy? After all, which of us now confirms a booking without first checking TripAdvisor? I can barely leave the house without reading every available review. The great thing is we no longer have to rely on a hotel's own website where the pictures make broom cupboards look like elegant salons and naturally, there's no mention of the piggery next door. The balance of power has been handed back to the consumer.

The hoteliers should relax though. Not only would it be a tragedy to deny us the irresistible pleasure of reading other people's horror stories; that is what would happen if only the blandest comments were retained for fear of libel. But, as with all other forms of web-based democracy, whether it's holiday makers, book buyers, or anonymous students slating their teachers on ratemyprofessor.com, the accuracy of individual postings is beside the point; most people judge in the round.

Indeed, while TripAdvisor has become indispensable, entering the site can be an as much of an ordeal as a bad hotel, because it attracts so many neurotics who enjoy sniffing out reasons to complain more than the stunning views from the terrace. No detail is too small to be recorded, so you end up paralysed – unable to choose between the beautiful place which may have "surly" reception staff, and the great location with the risk of a terrible night's sleep because of the "paper-thin walls".

There are also important national idiosyncracies to be weighed. Americans are obsessed with recording the size of everything, from wardrobe space to bath-tub circumference. Irish guests seem absurdly difficult to disappoint. Everyone "from the second we arrived" is "welcoming". English reviewers can't enjoy themselves until they have established that their room has adequate "tea-making facilities".

Or the reviewer may have personal obsessions that wouldn't bother me. A charming hotel in a fishing village on the south coast of Ireland would have gone undiscovered had I listened to the advice of a German who found everything about the place "chaotic". The most chaotic thing we saw was the weekly bus for Cork pulling up outside. Because you assume Chip from Canada or Nancy from New Jersey could be a terrible fusspot, you judge on the basis of averages. If 20 people have had a nightmare and offer plausible evidence, you stay away. If the reports are too glowing you suspect they were written by the staff.

Last year, friends invited me to their wedding in Beirut and booked me into the nearest hotel. TripAdvisor warned of both cockroaches and prostitutes.

I went anyway and had a flawless stay. Maybe it's those sex workers. From the Middle East to Middle America, they know where the good places are.